Embracing Discovery

This summer my library, like over 60 others, is implementing Summon. Serials Solutions’ discovery layer is meant to provide our users with that “one search solution” we’ve all been waiting for for so long by sucking all our resources (catalog records, local digital collections, and database content) into one central index that searches it all at once and links back to full text wherever it’s available.

So far, it’s kind of working that way – a tedious and detailed testing process is revealing big gaps in the index for us and more failures in linking than I’d like, but we are still very early in our implementation. (Whether these are Summon errors or local implementation errors is hard for me to tell, since there is not a transparent admin module to control the local index we’re building.) A built-in “database recommender” gives users additional options for finding resources based on their Summon search results – a feature I would like a great deal more if it didn’t provide such strange recommendations sometimes, like the humanities and social sciences index FRANCIS for the search “eating disorders.” (That technically works, but there are other places I’d probably try first.)

One very interesting side effect of our implementation is the conversations we’ve been having, both within my library and with other libraries in Ohio, about what we expect from Summon. Many people have expressed the idea that discovery layers will be something librarians promote to novice library users, but that we’ll still be directing users to our catalog for known-item and advanced searching, and to our existing database lists to choose advanced subject-specific resources. While I understand the impulse behind this idea (especially as I experience the limitations of the discovery layer during our testing), I am worried it is unrealistic in the short term and ultimately does our patrons a disservice over time.

On May 9 I spoke at a statewide electronic resources management forum in Ohio about usable database records and lists. Alan Boyd, Associate Director of Libraries at Oberlin College, asked me what I thought the future held for such lists. I said that in five years I expect our reliance on local A-Z lists and the like will be replaced by a more contextual and topic-driven solution, like Summon’s database recommender, within our discovery layers, and that we’ll be abandoning the format-specific information silos we currently maintain. This suggestion, however, was met with vigorous disagreement from some in the audience.

I see the point: discovery layers are very new. They don’t (and probably won’t) include everything we own, the indexing they provide is subject to the whims of the highly competitive publishing and library database industry, and they are not entirely successful yet at synthesizing detailed information in very disparate source formats (MARC, MeSH, Dublin Core, etc.). However, it is as naïve to assume we’ll continue to develop or even maintain the front ends of our ILS systems as it is to assume our users will want to seek out and learn how to use them. In a usability project we did last spring on the BGSU library’s website, we watched users struggle again and again to find known items in our OPAC, use our databases-by-subject lists to choose resources by topic, or navigate our e-journal portal to find the full text of an article from its citation. The reality is that the tools we have now don’t actually work that well without specialized knowledge: most users don’t know you have to search for the journal title and not the article title, or that catalog searches are messed up when you include punctuation, or that sometimes when you search without the subtitle you have more success – and why should they? When I was in library school I read Christine Borgman’s excellent article “Why are Online Catalogs Still Hard to Use?” It was published in 1996. Why are online catalogs still hard to use, even now, in 2011?

I hope we will be able to move beyond them. Perhaps discovery tools, like Summon, will be our vehicles for doing so (dozens of libraries are making that bet this summer, including my own). In the short term we’re going to be balancing the needs and knowledge of our current users with the limitations of our current tools, but we need to be ready to embrace a future in which powerful searching of vast repositories of content replaces navigation for both known items and discovery, and where we both build tools to support this new future of finding and are ready to abandon the old ones that never worked that well anyway.

Author: afry

Amy is the Electronic Resources Coordinator at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the instruction liaison for the Art Department. She received her library degree from the University of Illinois in 2003 and has been a librarian at academic libraries in Missouri, Minnesota and California.

3 thoughts on “Embracing Discovery”

  1. Ah, I think I was misunderstood. Researchers would just as soon find scholarship on their topic in a database that indexes the scholarly literature of their discipline. They don’t want to search a database of books on philosophy, then have to go search separately for articles. Or to search in one place for an article found in a book and another for one published in a journal.

    That’s all I meant. The discipline is the organizing principle, not the format of publication. I notice this particularly in instruction sessions – librarians tend to (by necessity) say “here’s how you find books; now let’s look at how to search for articles” as if they are naturally different processes – but a bibliography will have both mixed together.

  2. Interesting points, Amy. I’m particularly struck by the novice vs. expert breakdown for using discovery tools. We’ve had a trial of one of the federated search products for a while now and I’ve found myself *not* recommending it for novice users. Partly this is because some of our resources aren’t included in the trial, but I also think it’s too confusing for beginning library users — *so* many results are returned from so many different databases. I can’t remember ever suggesting it to a student at the reference desk. But I do show it to students in our 3-credit IL course and the more advanced students seem to love it (though they also take the step to go search resources not indexed in the federated search, so they may just be more motivated researchers to begin with).

  3. Amy,

    I enjoyed reading your blog post for it’s balanced view of Summon. I know that many libraries are jumping on the Summon bandwagon because it addresses some of the frustrations with federated search. However, as you point out Summon raises it’s own issues with regard to content that isn’t in it index or full-text that is not accessible.

    I run Deep Web Technologies, a company that has developed a next generation federated search product Explorit that is used by a number of leading organizations such as Stanford University, Texas Medical Center and George Mason University.

    I would welcome the opportunity to demonstrate Explorit to you and some of your readership.


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